Getting to Yes is a classic book on how to conduct a successful negotiation. One of its authors, Harvard professor William Ury, says that it has sold 15 million copies since its publication in 1981. It’s a foundational text for the renowned Program on Negotiation at Harvard. And if you have an MBA or an undergraduate degree in business, or took a course in negotiation, you were probably introduced to the book’s four principles for “non-adversarial bargaining.”
They are: “separate people from the problem,” “focus on interests, not positions,” “invent options for mutual gain,” and “insist on using objective criteria.”
Follow those rules, and – goes the theory – you can make a deal for mutual benefit. You get to “Yes.”
So why hasn’t this worked on the world’s most intractable, destabilizing, bloody dispute? Israelis and Palestinians have been locked in conflict for more than a century. How come they’re not at “Yes”?
The book offers sound principles that can be used for everything from negotiating for a new job to structuring an M&A deal. But deal making, using this theory or another, only works when both parties want a deal.
Sometimes they do.
For example, it’s worth remembering that Canada was once rocked by an intractable racial conflict (that’s how the French-English divide was characterized in the 19th century), and that the world’s longest undefended border was once highly defended and repeatedly violated. Escaping that by finding “options for mutual gain” is how Canada came to be. French and English came together in compromise. Canada and the U.S., after fighting two wars, agreed on a common border.
But that’s not how many international disputes end. Disagreements are often resolved not for mutual gain, but through a zero-sum equation, imposed by force of arms.
That’s what happened last month in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The region is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but its population is – or rather was – mostly ethnically Armenian. Since the late 1980s, the region had been governed by a separatist administration tied to Armenia. That ended last month when Azerbaijani forces launched a lightning military strike that overran the territory. Nearly the entire Armenian population, more than 100,000 people, have since fled.
There was no “non-adversarial bargaining.”
Such unhappy endings, and worse, are in the memory of every Israeli. It’s how the Nazis sought to resolve what they called “the Jewish Question,” through the Final Solution. It’s how hundreds of thousands of Jews, from Morocco to Iran and Yemen to Iraq, members of communities present since Antiquity, were expelled and erased from the map.
It is also in the memory of the Palestinians. They refer to the foundation of the modern state of Israel as the Nakba – the Catastrophe. And for them, it was.
That only logical end to the Israel-Palestine conflict, or at least the only one not involving mass death and displacement, or a permanent state of war, is the two-state solution. It involves both sides acknowledging that what they each want and deserve is their own country, with negotiations over practical geography, not maximalist principles.
Unfortunately, there has never been a time when both sides were fully on board with such an outcome.
In recent years, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies have sidelined and undermined those Palestinians least interested in violence, and most open to the possibility of a two-state solution. That has only helped Hamas.
And Hamas is entirely opposed to a two-state solution. It’s founding charter proclaims that the only way to end the conflict is with a Muslim theocratic state over 100 per cent of the territory of Israel. Next time you see a protest with banners calling for Palestine “From the River to the Sea,” understand that this is not a call for peace through justice and mutual respect. It is a call for peace through genocide.
Fifty years ago this month, Israel suffered the shock of a surprise attack in the Yom Kippur War. But the protagonist in that conflict, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, launched the war with peace in mind. Having redeemed his country’s pride after earlier defeats, he felt able to bid for a mutually beneficial deal – land for peace, and recognition of Israel’s right to exist.
One of the authors of Getting to Yes, the late Harvard professor Roger Fisher, was an adviser to the negotiations that resulted in the Camp David Accords of 1978. But agreement ultimately came about because the two sides understood their shared interests, and were willing to compromise in pursuit of them.
Until that happens, a just and lasting peace is not possible.